Homemade buns change the cookout game. When I make the effort to serve grass-fed beef, artisanal sausages or even a noble carrot, I want the bun to be of the same quality. So, when I am asked to bring something to an outdoor gathering, I bring the buns — and I’m the hero of the potluck.
What led me to this? There is no more egregious supermarket gambit than the inequitable packaging of hot dogs and hot dog buns — you know, more of one than the other. For years I overcompensated, which meant there were sure to be slightly stale, squished, leftover buns in the far recesses of my freezer. Eventually I learned to make my own.
The accompanying recipe makes a dozen hot dog buns or a dozen burger buns or a mix of the two, matching the needs of the group and the menu. (What a concept!) It takes only a couple of hours from start to finish, and most of that time is waiting for the dough to rise.
Even some accomplished cooks balk at the idea of working with yeast. For consistent results and less worry, I start with a leg up by mixing a “sponge” of dried yeast, warm water, a small amount of sugar and flour in a big bowl. It will bubble happily, and in just a few minutes this foamy, enthusiastic head start will provide the boost that yields a dependably quick, successful rise.
I use SAF brand instant yeast, found at some kitchen stores, Whole Foods Markets and online. It is dependable and reasonably priced. Active dry yeast, the grocery store packet, can be used instead of instant, but the latter has become more popular in recent years as it can be added without first dissolving it in water. Still, I opt for the sponge approach for the oomph it adds. (Rapid-rise yeast is different from instant and active and will not work in this recipe.)
Then, more flour, plus eggs, honey and butter are added to form a dough that can be kneaded by machine or by hand. It makes for a light workout, just a gentle rocking and folding motion, to bring out the dough’s silky, bouncy, charming qualities. Because this dough is so springy, avoid over-proofing and either set aside the time to make and bake the buns (about 2 hours total) or refrigerate the dough at this stage and come back to form, proof and bake them around an hour before serving.
Forming the buns is easy enough, but I always start with deflating the dough by pressing across the surface as though I am playing the piano — ridding it of bubbles that can make troublesome air pockets in the middle of a tight, fine crumb. For burger buns, after portioning the dough, I roll compact balls and firmly press each one into a hockey puck shape. This shape, I have learned, will rise to make your classic domed bun with a flat bottom.
To make hot dog buns, I roll up rectangles of dough like a cigar, tucking in the pointy ends. Initially, I tried baking these buns a few inches apart on a baking sheet, just as with the burger buns, but they were annoyingly inconsistent, bending this way and that. After one batch, my husband asked whether the long rolls were supposed to look like potatoes. Undaunted, I lined up two rows of formed dough portions across the width of a baking sheet and baked up a dozen gloriously burnished, straight-as-an-arrow, pull-apart hot dog buns.
I often brush breads with butter before baking for a glossy finish that isn’t crackly, yet still soft. When a topping of seeds is involved, a brush of beaten egg white is the better choice. A simple swipe and the seeds adhere through baking, splitting and even grilling. Seeds are a matter of taste; I’m a fan. I tried toasted sesame, poppy, and then hit on an everything-bagel spice blend as a great choice for buns that will hold chicken sausages and carrot dogs, especially.
This afternoon baking project has a satisfying result — perfectly pillowy buns that are good for toasting and grilling and taking on all manner of condiments. Definitely a match for the good things you put inside them.
Barrow is a Washington cookbook author. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
SAF-Instant yeast is available at some gourmet kitchen stores, at some Whole Foods Markets and through various online purveyors.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rise twice; first, for 1 hour, or it can be made a day in advance and held in the refrigerator, where it will rise slowly. The second time, the shaped buns need to rise for 45 minutes. The buns are best when freshly made, but they can keep for a day or two, in a container at room temperature. Baked buns may be wrapped individually and frozen for up to 1 month; defrost in the refrigerator overnight and use promptly.
From cookbook author and Bring It! columnist Cathy Barrow.
For the sponge
3¾ teaspoons instant dry yeast (see headnote)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1¼ cups warm water (about 110 degrees)
For the dough
5¼ cups (630 grams) flour, plus more as needed
2 large eggs, 1 whole and 1 separated into yolk and white (lightly beat the whole egg with the 1 yolk; reserve the remaining white for brushing)
¼ cup (85 grams) honey
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
About 2 teaspoons (total) toasted sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and/or Everything Spice mix (SEE note; optional)
For the sponge: Rinse the bowl of a stand mixer with warm water (to warm it up). Add the yeast, sugar, flour and the 1¼ cups of warm water; stir gently and cover with plastic wrap. Let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes; it should bubble and foam. If there is no visible reaction, dispose of the sponge and start again with fresh yeast.
For the dough: Grease a large bowl with cooking oil spray or by brushing its interior with vegetable oil. Add the flour, the beaten egg yolks and white, honey and salt to the yeasty sponge. Use the dough-hook attachment; knead on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes, until smooth. Add the butter pieces and continue to knead for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the texture becomes bouncy, silky and soft and the butter is all incorporated.
Scoop out the dough, give it four or five kneads on the counter, and then tip it into the greased bowl, turning the dough to coat it all over. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and move it to a warm, draft-free spot to rest for 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in bulk.
Alternatively, the dough may be covered and refrigerated overnight and brought back to room temperature for 30 minutes before proceeding with the recipe.
To make 12 burger buns, line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly flour the counter and tip the dough out of the bowl onto the counter. Gently deflate the dough.
Divide the dough into 12 equal portions (they will weigh about 95 grams each). Flatten each portion firmly, deflating the dough further, forming a disk that is 2½ to 3 inches in diameter. Gather the edges of the disk and pinch them together at the center to form a ball, then place the ball seam side down on the counter. Use the palm of your hand on the top to lightly roll the dough ball around, forming a tight exterior. Check the bottom of the bun to make sure the seam is tight, pinching it again if there is a gap, and place it seam side down on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining portions of dough. Each baking sheet will hold 6 burger buns.
Once the balls have been formed, firmly press down on each one to flatten it into a bun shape about 4 inches in diameter. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let them rise for no more than 45 minutes. Do not allow them to rise beyond this time, or they will over-proof.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven to accommodate two baking sheets, as needed.
Brush the surface of each ball with the reserved beaten egg white. Sprinkle sesame seeds, poppy seeds or Everything Spice mix over some or all of them, if using. Transfer the baking sheets to the oven; bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until quite deeply browned, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a bun should register 190 degrees.
Cool the buns on a wire rack. Slice before filling, toasting or grilling.
To make 12 hot dog buns: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Lightly flour the counter and tip the dough out of the bowl, gently deflating it. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions (95 grams each). Flatten and deflate each portion into a rectangle about 5 by 4 inches. Starting at a 5-inch edge, tightly roll the dough into a cigar shape. About 1 inch from the far edge, tuck in the sides, as though you were wrapping a package. Pinch the edges, ends and seams together forcefully, then roll the cigar shape under two palms to form an even cylinder, trying not to create ends that are too pointed.
Check the seams, pinching them tightly again, as needed, and place the bun, seam side down on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining portions of dough, forming two rows each with 6 buns evenly spaced across the width of the baking sheet. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let them rise for another 45 minutes. They will almost touch each other once they’ve risen and will touch as they bake.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Brush the surface of the buns with the reserved egg white. Sprinkle sesame seeds, poppy seeds or Everything Spice mix over some or all of them, if using. Transfer to the oven and bake (middle rack) for 20 to 25 minutes, until quite deeply browned, rotating the sheet from front to back halfway through. An instant-read thermometer inserted from the side into the center of a bun should register 190 degrees.
Cool the buns on a wire rack. Slice before filling, toasting or grilling.
NOTE: For Everything Spice mix, combine 2 tablespoons each sesame and poppy seed and 1 tablespoon each caraway seed, sea or kosher salt, dehydrated onion flakes and dehydrated garlic flakes.
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